Nigeria-Benin: Sunday Igboho’s legal woes could reignite border battle

By Nwokoye Mpi
Posted on Thursday, 26 August 2021 08:17

Sunday Igboho
Sunday Adeyemo, also known as Sunday Igboho/SIAF

Sunday Igboho, the Yoruba nation activist, is still being held in Benin Republic over allegations of 'illegal migration'. However, analysts worry that the Nigerian government could strong-arm its tiny West African neighbour to release Igboho to them.

Igboho, whose real name is Sunday Adeyemo, has been agitating for an independent Yoruba nation. Since his arrest in Cotonou on 19 July, his name has continued to attract widespread support and sympathy particularly in southwest Nigeria.

The 48-year-old was arrested on his way to Germany and is facing charges of illegal migration as well as attempts to cause civil unrest in Benin.

Speculation is mounting that Benin may be holding Igboho as a pawn in a wider battle, however, as a way to extract concessions from Abuja over Nigeria’s repeated and costly border closures.

Anybody can charge anyone [in] court, […] but it shouldn’t then be turned into a game of pawns just like we are beginning to see them do.

Back home, Igboho is wanted by Nigerian authorities over allegations of ‘illegal stockpiling of arms and ammunition’. Nigeria’s secret police, the State Security Services (SSS), raided his home at midnight on 1 July and the officers came under heavy gun attack. At least seven people died in the gun duel.

Some of the items recovered from Igboho’s home, according to the SSS, include seven AK-47 assault rifles; three pump action guns; 30 fully charged AK-47 magazines; 5,000 rounds of 7.62mm ammunition; two pistol holders; one pair of binoculars; five cutlasses; two cartridges; 18 walkie talkies and 50 whistles.

Igboho’s supporters claim that the items were planted at his home by Nigerian officials whom they also blame for his ordeal at the hands of Beninoise authorities.

“Any conspiracy against Igboho is a conspiracy against the Yoruba race but we are watching the Nigeria government and its actors closely; but for Benin Republic, let them continue to do what they know how to do best,” said Bode Adedini, one of the supporters.

Fighting Fulanis

When he launched his campaign against Fulani herdsmen in southwest Nigeria last January, many saw Igboho as a noisemaker who merely wanted to play to the gallery. Prior to this, his only claim to popularity was as a political thug and part of the local transport union that routinely unleash mayhem on political opponents in Oyo State.

A wave of kidnappings and killings, mostly carried out by armed herders, had persisted across the southwest region over the past few years. Even the establishment of a regional police by the area governors did little to stem the tide. When Igboho stepped in with an eviction notice for the herdsmen, his unconventional method was embraced by a lot of residents who had lost confidence in the ability of the state to offer them protection.

“Igboho has been garnering support because he is fighting for the existence of our people, the lives of our people, their means of livelihood, amongst others, from the hands of these criminals called killer herdsmen,” Adedini said.

Kanu connection

Across the Niger river, in the southeastern part of the country, another separatist leader – Nnamdi Kanu – was adopting a more confrontational approach in his agitation for an Igbo nation. Using social media, Kanu frequently encourages his followers to attack and kill Nigerian security officials in the southeast, apparently in retaliation for years of killings by the police and military.

Kanu, who was a fugitive before he was arrested in Kenya and flown back to Nigeria, is the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra and its armed wing – the Eastern Security Network.

Analysts say that while both Igboho and Kanu are fighting for a similar cause, the former appears to enjoy more widespread support from his people than the latter, who frequently pushes his followers to attack political leaders in his region.

For instance, during one of his court hearings in Cotonou last month, prominent Yoruba traditional leaders such as the Ooni of Ife and Olubadan of Ibadan dispatched a delegation from Nigeria to observe the proceedings.

“Kanu seems to be a lone ranger while Igboho is not,” said Olu Mayungbe, president of Yoruba Self-Preservation (YSP).

“Igboho’s plight is with the full support of his aides, lovers, and all other agitators worldwide. He is not alone and he has never carried out the struggle for self-actualisation alone. Yorubas are in his support and by God’s grace, we all shall overcome.”

Adedotun Hassan, the president of Yoruba Council of Youth Worldwide, criticised Igboho for attempting to form an alliance with Kanu and adopting the IPOB leader’s ‘uncultured’ behaviour of calling political and traditional leaders rude names. He, however, admitted that Igboho’s media team may have misled him.

“That is a very big error, even Chief Sunday Igboho [doesn’t have a] registered group – such as OPC and the likes – but everyone loves him as a good Yoruba son and warrior. Chief Sunday Igboho should know when to retreat too,” said Hassan, a lawyer.

Kanu, who is currently in detention, is facing charges of treason before a federal court in Abuja. There are speculations that the Nigerian government could strong-arm Benin authorities to release Igboho to them: to face charges of illegal possession of firearms.

Abuja’s options

Political observers say one tactic frequently adopted by the Nigerian government to force compliance from Cotonou is to close the border between the two countries, as it has done in 2003 and 2019. According to the World Bank, informal trade between Benin and Nigeria accounts for almost a quarter of the GDP of the French-speaking country.

One Twitter user, @nzesylva, said: “Benin Republic is not forgiving Nigeria anytime soon for that border closure nonsense. Spoken to manufacturers and exporters of late? Nothing like [the] ECOWAS accord. I am really surprised they would cooperate on Sunday Igboho.”

Hassan noted that the Igboho issue should not be mixed up with the border politics between the two countries. “It will be good for both counties to treat these issues separately,” he said.

“Benin Republic ha[s] a right to charge Igboho [in] court but the Nigerian government should [remain] aloof for now. Anybody can charge anyone [in] court, even Nigeria can still charge Chief Igboho; but it shouldn’t then be turned into a game of pawns just like we are beginning to see them do.”

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